Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — but what if it’s nighttime and you can’t see the smoke?
And what if there aren’t enough inspectors to enforce the state no-burn law on red action days — or nights — as some guilt-free residents light fireplaces?
That’s the haze the Salt Lake City Council wandered into this week when it sought to answer those questions and others in its initial foray into tamping down wood smoke. What council members found was that clearing the air of pine soot won’t be easy.
Recent studies reveal that wood smoke is far more harmful to air quality than previously believed, especially when evaluating fine particulate pollution called PM2.5. Heating a house with a fireplace or conventional wood stove produces the equivalent in PM2.5 pollution of 200 houses heated by natural gas, according to the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ).
The EPA estimates that in the seven northern Utah counties out of compliance with national clean-air standards, there are 36,822 wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.
The council, along with Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, wants to lead out on air pollution. But its members are mindful of an earlier attempt when the city passed an anti-idling ordinance in late 2011, only to see the Legislature gut it early in 2012. It may be against the law to idle your car in Salt Lake City, but state lawmakers made sure motorists wouldn’t be penalized for it.
"We have been smashed down far too often for being out in front," cautioned Councilman Stan Penfold.
But Councilman Kyle LaMalfa said Salt Lake City should adopt an aggressive ordinance and beef up enforcement and fines.
"It is our duty and position to take a stand and we should take it now," LaMalfa said. "The mayor said it best: ‘Look out the window and imagine our future.’ "
Councilwoman Lisa Adams, however, noted that Salt Lake City’s boundaries are porous, with pollution moving up and down the Wasatch Front from various communities and polluters.
"We cannot put curtains around our city," she said. "Where are we with collaborating with other entities along the Wasatch Front?"
The Salt Lake County Health Department collaborates with the state DAQ’s complaint-based enforcement system on wood burning during red-alert days. A health-department inspector checks out wood-burning complaints and forwards the information to DAQ, said Corbin Anderson, supervisor in the county’s Air Pollution Bureau.
This winter season, DAQ has received 203 complaints and issued 28 citations, across northern Utah, said spokeswoman Donna Kemp Spangler. That is up from last winter when the agency received 86 complaints, issued 16 citations and eight warnings.
Fines for burning on red-alert days are $25 for the first infraction; $150 for the second; and can go as high as $299, according to Jay Morris, who heads up DAQ’s wood-burning enforcement program.
But enforcing the wood-burning ban is daunting, Morris said, because most residents use fireplaces after dark. No enforcement officers work after 5 p.m. but will follow up complaints by telephone or on the Department of Environmental Quality website.
"People see a plume from a chimney that may be a furnace or water heater," he said. "At least 50 percent of the time when we get an exact address, there is no wood-burning mechanism in the house. People smell smoke and it could be from down the block."
The DAQ wood-smoke team is made up of seven people and must cover seven counties.
Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, who also is the executive director of Breathe Utah, a clean-air advocacy organization, said collaborating with Salt Lake County and other municipalities along the Wasatch Front before developing an anti-wood-smoke ordinance would be more constructive than acting alone.
"The city shouldn’t create an ordinance and then hand it to the other entities and ask them to do it, too," she said.Next Page >
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